Russell Marshall Writes…

Russell Marshall

‘Poverty, disadvantage and inequality’ are the real education problems

By Russell Marshall
(Russell Marshall was Minister of Education 1984-87, and is a member of the Mana Education Centre Board)

One recollection of my first election campaign in Wanganui forty years ago is a conversation with the principal of a large primary school.

In talking about problem children, he said that as a rule, when a child started at school at 5 years of age, he could tell if there would be problems.

More recently I have heard two principals of Porirua primary schools, one of them this year, speak of new entrants arriving at their schools with the language levels of a 2 year old. They will have done well if the child reaches 4 year old competence in the first year.


Both OECD and the Wellington Regional Health have both in recent times expressed concern at the quality of children’s health in Porirua East.

The controversial documentary screened just before the election last November, focusing on the Russell School community highlighted among other things the poor quality of much of the rented housing, the need to provide breakfast and the shortage of shoes.

They could also have mentioned the markedly lower level of experience the children had of a world beyond their neighbourhood compared with those from wealthier communities. The effects of the widening of the income gap are by no means confined to Russell School.

It was John Hattie, then Professor of Education at Auckland University whose work on school achievement was picked up by members of the present government. In essence, Hattie’ research showed that quality teaching has more long term effect on student achievement than does the size of classes.

The recent controversial move on class sizes was a part of an overall drive, including National Standards, to improve the achievement of those underperforming children and students.

With due respect to Hattie, there was a glaring omission in his work and findings, an omission which has carried over into the Key government’s statements of the issues and of policies to deal with them.

There is little reference to the enduring effects of a child’s everyday out-of-school environment, or to how the effects of such disadvantage can be ameliorated. The focus seems to be solely on the quality of teaching.

As professor John Clark of Massey University  observed last week: ‘Whatever in-school factors might be at play are far outweighed by out-of-school ones….In 1939, Education Minister Peter Fraser…saw that the only way to tackle the social causes of inequality was to confront them head on by implementing health, welfare, employment and education policies which collectively addressed such concerns as family poverty and disadvantage ’

[1] Any assistance to teachers to help them do their work even better will be welcome but will never come anywhere near to solving the fundamental inequities which bring some depressing results in the first place.

[1] Dominion Post 7 June page B5


[1] Dominion Post 7 June page B5